Wednesday, September 17, 2008

St Mary's in Fort St George, Madras : The Oldest Anglican Church East of Suez

St Mary's in Fort St George, Madras was first consecrated in 1680 which makes it the oldest Anglican church east of Suez . I have been a frequent visitor to this historic church which has seen continuous worship for all of its existence even if, during the 3-year occupation of Fort St George by the French (1746 - 49), it was put to other uses. During each of my several visits, I have marvelled at its construction and its monuments, all of them of historic significance.

But the impetus to post the story of this church came only about two weeks back when I took two visitors from London, Jeremy Warner-Allen and Christian Hobart, to see this old pile. I had quite some time back noted Christian's surname and, by pertinent or impertinent questioning, gathered that his family is the one which has a connection with Madras in that two of his ancestors were at different times Governors of Madras. Firstly Robert, Lord Hobart (1760 - 1816) later to succeed as the 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire , was Governor of Madras during 1793 -98. He went on to become Secretary of State for the Colonies and held other high office as well. He is the one after whom Hobart in Tasmania is named. And then, between 1872 -75,a second Lord Hobart, Vere Henry, was Governor of Madras. He died in Madras and is buried here. Christian's family connection with Madras is what took us three fogeys into the church one morning a couple of weeks ago. Of that visit more anon, let us now look into the story of the church itself.

The Decision to Build a Church

First, a beautiful aquatint engraving of the church drawn by Justinian Gantz, circa 1850. Have been looking to get one for myself, it is scarce but there is hope, serendipity is always round the corner :

The church is within Fort St George which is a fort, a fort being so necessary in those days for a secure trading post, that the British first completed in about 1653 and gradually enlarged to its present size as well as eminence as the seat of the state government. Overseas traders in those times needed fortifications to protect against lightning strikes by other European traders or, sometimes, by hostile local rulers. Here is a plan of the fort, drawn around 1700 -25 and published about 1726 :

The fort itself is at bottom left on the plan and and you can see the church within it by enlarging the picture.

The church was built with private contributions, the East India Company having no part in its building. The moving spirit behind the building of St Mary's was Governor Streynsham Master (1640 - 1724) who had been appointed to the post in 1678 after a number of years with the Company based in Surat on the west coast of India. Master (later Sir Streynsham Master) was known as a man who did not disobey orders but acted without them. Soon after taking up the appointment in January 1678 he determined, entirely on his own initiative and without reference to headquarters, that the settlement needed a proper church. Until then divine services had been held in the largest room in the fort, the Factors' common room, which served as a chapel besides being put to other uses. Master and his colleagues in council (a Governor in the days of the Company being a Governor in Council) contributed about half of the 800 odd Pagodas raised (about Sterling 400 then), the contribution of Elihu Yale, a Merchant on the Company's rolls, being 15 Pagodas. And the rest came mostly from other Merchants and Factors in the Company's service. Here is a portrait of Streynsham Master, lifted from the National Portrait Gallery site :

The Construction

William Dixon, Chief Gunner of the East India Company's Madras Establishment, was instructed by Master to build the church. In those times Gunners were also apparently the Engineers to the army. So, in the sense that Streynsham Master pressganged his Gunner into building the church, the East India Compaany did contribute, albeit involuntarily, to its constuction. There is a commemorative brass plaque inside the church to another Master Gunner, Edward Fowle, and on account of this plaque Fowle was previously credited with the building of the church. But the concordance to Madras history and, more than a concordance, an indispensable work for the history of the city is Col Henry Davison Love's " Vestiges of Old Madras ". And Love has pointed out that Dixon was the one in service at the relevant time and that Fowle arrived in Madras only after the completion of the church. Col Love knew his Dodwell & Miles (which needs a separate post one day) and also had access to source records in the Fort and had no doubt consulted the passenger lists of all the sailings of the period to Madras. So, Dixon it was and not Fowle. Here is the plan of the church, 80 feet by 56 as originally built ( the separate tower having been sometime later conjoined to the building).

The church is a typical fortified structure as one would expect a gunner's construction to be. But Dixon seems to have surpassed anything in this line. St Mary's is the ultimate bomb proof church with walls over five feet thick and a vaulted roof that is about four feet thick and not less than two feet at its thinnest point!

My outstretched arms span about 6'2" and wouldn't obviously wrap around the walls due to the open leaf of the window shutter which is about two foot wide (and there was still the bit of wall outside the window to enclose with my hands!). In fact, during the French bombardment of Madras in 1746, the church was the one building in the fort to come through unscathed. The French did damage the steeple when they attacked again in 1758 but that was not built by Dixon,the tower having been added in about 1701 and a spire in 1710.

Note how Dixon, first and foremost the Gunner, castellated the parapet. He also did not use any wood in the structure to make it fire proof in the event of bombing.The church, conceived as an impregnable little fortress, may look squat and solid on the outside, suggesting a Norman Keep , but Dixon gave it a lovely interior : a nave with two aisles and a gallery at the far end from the altar. The roofing is vaulted with rose ornaments in relief on the curved ceiling.

I should have said that the upkeep and maintenance of the church, declared a protected monument after independence, is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India who do take good, if typically bureaucratic style, care of the premises.The church is clearly in need of painting but that is in progress and, in about three months it should look somewhat like this picture (from : which please visit as there are some other good pics as well ).

As the old oil (artist unknown ) I found in the church shows, it is a simple unpretentious design but the faintly classical touches are evident and the proportions seem just about right. This is all evident in the Gantz engraving at the top as well.

Mind you, from 1660 a classical revival was sweeping through England and Christopher Wren was building all those baroque masterpieces. And word must have reached Dixon of the trends back home but the styling of St Mary's seems to hark back to the churches of a previous age. Here is what the tower and spire at present look like with painting in progress :

And here is one from the Wikipedia page on the church, an uncluttered view : This original tower is not by Dixon and, after the bombing by the French in 1746 and again in 1759, it was extensively repaired and the spire added in about 1795. So, the detailing and ornamentation we see on the tower is almost certainly latterday.

The Naming & Consecration

Since construction commenced on 25th March 1678, Lady Day, it was decided to name the church St Mary's. I see from Wikipedia that until 1752, when the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar was made, Lady Day was the New Year's day, a very appropriate choice of day to begin construction. The church was finished and duly consecrated on Thursday, the 28th of October 1680. The Fort had had a Chaplain on its establishment since 1676 and the incumbent in 1680 was Richard Portman. He had to have a special licence from the Bishop of London to consecrate the church which Streynsham Master obtained in time for the event. The notables and gentry no doubt trooped in on the appointed day and hour, led by Governor Streynsham Master. A memorial on behalf of the community was presented to Portman requesting him to accept "this our freewill offering" , to consecrate it and to set it apart from all profane and common use.

A Brief Look at the Annals of the Church

In comparison with churches in Europe and Asia Minor, this church has had a much shorter history but a no less eventful one. And let me remind you, it is the oldest Anglican place of worship in all Asia and therefore associated with a number of events and personalities in British Indian history. Which is what makes it special, in addition to its construction and its charming interior.

The church register, which is continuous since its 1680 inception, is preserved and the volumes from 1680 to 1819 are loaned to the Fort St George Museum, a stone's throw away from the church and certainly worth a visit. A copy in thick vellum of the original register, copied in the 18th century, is on display inside the church and all original records from 1819 onwards are also available in the church for inspection. The notable entries include :

The marriage of Elihu Yale to Catherine Hynmers, on 4th November 1680, the very first entry in the record and within a week of the original consecration with the Governor, Streynsham Master, giving away the bride. The lady was the widow of Joseph Hynmers, a Member in Council and friend of Yale, who had died in April of that year.

And David Yale, the son of Eli and Catherine Yale, is buried in the original churchyard, having died in 1688. Yale went on to become Governor of Madras (1687 - 92), amassed a fortune from his private trading and later endowed a building after his name in the college which later came to be called Yale University. And then Mary, Elizabeth and Katherine, daughters of Job Charnock the founder of Calcutta, were baptised on the 19th August 1689. They were Charnock's children by an extraordinarily beautiful Hindu widow who he had rescued from the funeral pyre of her husband as she was attempting to commit suttee (a custom we do not seem to have had in South India).

The most famous marriage recorded in the church register is, of course, that of Robert Clive to Margaret Maskelyne, 18t February 1753. Among the objects loaned to the Museum are the alms dish of silver some 17 " in diameter, presented by Elihu Yale, and a Bible, dating from 1660, Streynsham Master's personal copy. It was presented to the church in 1881 by G.C.Master of the Indian Civil Service, a descendant.

There are some other entries of interest to this blog, one of them being the christening of our friend, James Achilles Kirkpatrick (see previous post on Kitty Kirkpatrick). Also, there is the marriage of Henry Russell, Kirkpatrick's deputy at Hyderabad and, later, a successor as British Resident) to Jane Amelia Casamaijor. She died in 1808 aged 19, within four months of the marriage, and there is a beautiful memorial to her near the south door.

Now, the church was witness to its share of history, notably the French occupation of Madras (1746 - 49) as well as the French siege mounted in 1758. The church escaped both onslaughts unscathed but the French, during their occupation of the fort, used it as a water storage facility. It is unlikely that services were continued in this period, the English works, including that of Col Love, are mostly silent on this subject and not surprisingly, since they say history is written by the victor. But French is as Greek to your devoted blogger and until he can look up the diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai, dubash or translator to and, in fact, confidant of Dupleix, nothing more can be said on the subject.

Inside the Church

Christian, Jeremy and I trooped in one weekday morning a couple of weeks back. As a frequent visitor over the years, I not only knew that there were many objects of interest in it for the two visitors but, espececially, that there were some Hobart inscriptions that Christian Hobart would like to see.

We entered, myself yet again noting the thickness of the walls. Immediately to the right, on a pillar beneath the gallery, is the memorial inscription to Margaretta, Baroness Hobart, and her son John. She was the wife of the Lord Hobart (1760 - 1816) who was Governor of Madras between 1793 - 98. Notch one for Christian.

Moving left and halfway up the centre aisle is the spot where Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, Bart who died in Madras in 1816 is interred and there is a tablet on the spot. He was the cousin of Admiral Hood, 1st Viscount, and almost equally famous, having fought in Nelson's Navy in senior commands. The photo of the tablet came out dark, so here is an engraving of the Admiral, c. 1807, from Wikipedia :

Moving up the aisle and standing on the chancel steps just below the choir stalls, it was my turn to be surprised : another Lord Hobart, Vere Henry, who was Governor in 1872 -75 is interred just below the steps, having pride of place or the senior position among all intra-mural interments, right perpendicular to the altar ! There is, of course, a memorial tablet on the spot and yet I had missed it even though I knew he had died in office in Madras and had, on previous visits, noted his marble bust behind the lectern. How come ? I realised that not only was the spot dark, being right centre of the centre aisle, but the tablet was oriented towards the altar . Quite a sensible presentation come to think of it but liable to be overlooked unless one can read upside down.

This must have pleased or at least surprised Christian no end for he would not have expected to connect with his ancestors in this way when we planned the visit. I had also not forewarned him. But he couldn't have been as surprised as I was on seeing the Hobart tablet, I am sure. Notch two but there was the bust awaiting his inspection and that too one by Matthew Noble (1817 - 76) a famous sculptor. Was this one of Noble's last works or was it finished by his studio after his death?

I gleaned from my tattered, old, second hand Debrett (1985) that Hobart is a courtesy title used by the heirs to the Earldom of Buckinghamshire, the Barony of Hobart having been elevated to the earldom many centuries ago. The Lord Hobart who is interred in the church obviously didn't succeed to the earldom, having predeceased his father. But the earldom still thrives albeit not at the family seat of Blickling in Norfolk (now with the National Trust, Christian tells me). The statue does Lord Hobart and the sculptor credit, the Governor is immaculate in his jacket, bow tie and carefully groomed beard, every inch the Victorian aristocrat. Here is Christian Hobart moments later (shot deliberately slightly out of focus to capture the surreal effect he might have been feeling at the time) wearing a beatific smile at having been able to touch the past in this totally unexpected way (he also quickly bought himself a copy of the church history).

The Altarpiece

Now we turned our attention to the altar piece, the famed altar piece of St Mary's. It is of the Last Supper, provenance previously unknown. It is reputedly captured from the French when Pondicherry was taken in 1761 and the British sacked the town and apparently repaid with interest the French looting of Fort St George in 1746. For a long time it was fondly thought to be Raphaelite, painted by his studio, with the chalice thought to have been added by the Master himself.

The truth is more prosaic but no less interesting for that. The painting is by George Willison (1741 - 97), a Scottish artist, who came out to Madras in 1774 with the help of his uncle George Dempster, a Director of the East India Company. Willison stayed on till 1780, quickly obtaining the patronage of Muhammad Ali, Nawab of the Carnatic, himself based in Madras by this time. Thanks to this patronage and other commissions, he returned to Scotland a very wealthy man. Besides some fine portraits of the Nawab (see below, it is from and other notables, Willison was also commissioned by Nawab Muhammad Ali to paint the St Mary's altar piece for 500 Pagodas.

But the Nawab was perpetually in debt, yet made a virtue out of necessity in that he exploited the venality of the British merchants by borrowing from them at excessively high interest. In this he seems to have anticipated the methods of the modern day perpetrators of the sub-prime crisis. Because as long as his debts, and the usurious interest on them, were outstanding he knew implicitly that he could keep juggling his nine balls in the air as his lenders were always at pains to bail him out. More good money after bad and the bubble never quite burst in his lifetime. Anyway, in 1809 the trustees of Willison's estate claimed the fee of 500 pagodas and fees for other unpaid works from the Nawab's debt commissioners (the Nawab too having passed on a decade before). So, that is the story of the altarpiece but it is still not widely known outside art history circles . The revised church history correctly attributes the picture to Willison but it seems likely that the church does not know the full facts and the exact evidence available.

The altarpiece may not be by Raphael but, at least to my untrained eye, it looks a grand picture worthy of the attribution, however incorrect. It also is remarkable that the Nawab decided to have an altarpiece commissioned for the church but this was not uncommon. The Hindu Princess of Tanjore provided the altar rails to the church in memory of her friend, Vere Henry, Lord Hobart shortly after his death.

Other Memorial Inscriptions

There are more than a few funerary monuments inside the church by John Flaxman and other well known sculptors. The one I liked best is a Flaxman for Josiah Webbe, a former Chief Secretaary to the Madras Government, who died in 1804 aged 37.

Webbe was one held in the highest regard by many including Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, who spent a few years in Madras during this period, using the city as a high command headquarters as it were, and knew Webbe well. It is known that the Duke kept an engraving of Webbe with him in a prominent spot in his house. He is known to have said of Webbe : "He was one of the ablest men I ever knew and, what is more, one of the most hinest".

Then, some plaques after my own heart : The first one is to a Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army who earned his Victoria Cross in Lucknow during the mutiny in 1857. He was Lt Gen Macpherson and the brass plaque is kept lovingly polished.

And here is what, to me, is best of all : a tribute to the Indian soldier. It is a burnished copper plaque with scrollwork all round, commemorating the disbandment of three units of the celebrated Carnatic Infantry.

And below is a chromolithograph of mine showing the soldiers of each of the disbanded units (the 73rd Carnatic at extreme right, the 83rd Wallajahbad at third right and the 63rd Palamcottah fourth right, respectively Madras Mussulman, Christian and Tamil, i,e Hindu, the latter two being from the regions in the Tamil country whose names their units bore).

I nearly forgot to mention Sir Thomas Munro (1761 - 1827), a great Governor of Madras and a great man in his own right. He is the man who intorduced the system of revenue administration that is still, with minor regional variations, followed in India. He was Governor of the Presidency from 1820 until his death near Gooty, about 300 miles away. He was first buried in the churchyard at Gooty, a very picturesque spot (see watercolour below by Justinian Gantz, a famous Madras artist of the time), but reinterred inside St Mary's a couple of years later.

Sir Thomas Munro is interred slightly behind Lord Hobart in the centre aisle. ather than a visual of his tablet inscription, I prefer to give you one of an engraving of this great Governor and civil servant, a man who is greatly admired in this part of India. In this picture he is wearing the uniform of a Major General which was his military rank. It is an engraving that I am delighted with because it is what is known as a multiple method or combination print, handmade of course. Got it last year on the net for ten pounds thinking it was a plain engraving and etching. But it also has stipple on the face, liberal use of the roulette for the hair and aquatint for tone (in the background, the jacket etc). A truly nice engraving for a great personality and worth much more than I paid for it.

Other memorials include one to Frederick Christain Schwartz, a missionary held in great veneration by all and an intermediary between Hyder Ali and the British in the Mysore wars. Of him Hyder said : "Let him pass for he is a Holy Man", a sincere and ringing prnouncement across the ravages of war ! The usually tight fisted East India Company paid for this memorial by J.Bacon, another famous funerary sculptor, and had it shipped at great expense to Madras. The churchyard is paved with 104 graves which were in a cemetery a mile away. But the French used the tombstones as cover for their attack and bombardment in the 18th Century, so the graves were shifted to the churchyard. The graves include one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of the British in India, that of Elizabeth Baker who died in 1652.

Fort St George : the Church in Its Context

Below are some visuals of Fort St George, a grand setting within which St Mary's is located. The fort itself oozes history, Clive lived here as did Wellesley and his younger brother, the Duke, and there are many fine buildings within including the house where Robert Clive lived (the first one below).

And this one is where the principal secretariat of the state government functions. Note the grand pillars made of Pallvaram Gneiss, also known as Charnockite after Job Charnock (whose three daughters were baptised in the St Mary's font made of the same gneiss).

And a view inside the fort from an aquatint in my collection (but as my scanner isn't large enough, I have borrowed the British Library jpeg). Note that there is no spire to St Mary's as the picture, though engraved in 1804, was probably drawn in the 1770's when the artist was based in Madras (at which period the spire, earlier knocked out by the French, was yet to be rebuilt).

So, that is St Mary's in Fort St George, Madras where you can potter about for a whole afternoon (several afternoons actually) and be surprised at every turn. I had always thought this church deseves to be presented to the world many times over and have probably gone quite overboard in doing my bit for that cause. But it is a church by the sea, in the magnificent setting of the fort, a church where Clive got married, Wellington worshipped (he witnessed a marriage too and the register has captured it) and which continues to have a small but loyal and steadfast congregation. It is under the very good care of the Church of South India and known the world over. The Prince of Wales came for its three hundredth anniversary and I am sure the church will go on for a few thousand years. As a resident of Madras I, like many others in this city,take pride in this little church and its historical associations. I leave you now with visuals of the the baptismal font made of Charnockite and of the Governor's gallery, all Mahogany and Burmah Teak, beautifully carved over three centuries ago.


hobsit said...

Just came across this beautiful article while researching my ancestor Lord George Pigot, who was twice Governor of Madras and came to a sticky end in 1777.Do you know if he is buried nearby?

Anonymous said...

Sati was performed in South India too in olden days. As a matter of fact one of our ancestors entered the funeral pyre with her husband and till today before coducting weddings or thread ceremonies we ask for her blessings first and then do the other poojas.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your delightful blog. Found a note about a distant ancestor which I have added to my family tree.

anidon said...

i am dr. aniket from pune working in delhi currently,i am in the process of writing a book on sir thomas munro,i need to do some research on it.can you provide any links or materials regarding munro..
pleasee send u r mobile no if u want to talk to me regarding it i will call u back.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

thank you it helped in preparing my report